City must find answers for unwise policy of overworking cops

Changes announced by Chicago Police Supt. David Brown are a step in the right direction. But as long as cops are too fatigued from cancelled days off, they’re at risk of making poor snap decisions.

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Chicago Police work the scene where multiple people were shot in the 3300 block of West Flournoy Street in the Homan Square neighborhood,

Chicago police work the scene of a shooting on West Flournoy Street in Homan Square on Aug. 19.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The city and police department should be working overtime to devise a better policy for canceling police officers’ days off.

On Tuesday, Police Supt. David Brown took a step in the right direction by announcing no more than one regular day off will be canceled per week for post-probationary sworn officers, except during certain busy periods that include Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.

But the city really needs to do two more things: Make a clear decision about how much overtime is too much for police and upgrade its record-keeping technology so it knows how many hours police officers actually are on the clock.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said money is in the budget to take the “first big steps” to invest in internal record-keeping technology, and we hope the new resources get the job done.

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But Brown’s new policy is not enough to ensure police are well-rested when working and not affected by fatigue when they must make snap decisions in difficult situations on the street. That’s when serious mistakes can be made, risking the lives of civilians and of officers themselves and potentially costing the city huge legal settlements.

Normally, police officers work a schedule of four days on and then two “regular days” off.

But just before Brown laid out his new policy, Chicago Inspector General Deborah Witzburg released a report that found more than 1,000 members of the Chicago Police Department were scheduled to work 11 or more consecutive days between April 1 and May 31. Their regular days off were canceled.

That’s a sign of a police department under duress. And it wasn’t even the peak of the summer, when crime tends to soar.

Witzburg also said the city record-keeping is so antiquated that it was hard to figure out just how many hours police officers were working.

Often, officers are happy to get the extra pay for canceled days off. But sometimes it gets to be too much, with serious impacts on mental stress and personal lives. Police officers have described to us how difficult it is to live under a system in which time off is constantly being canceled.

The relentless canceling of days off has been cited as contributing to 10 police suicides since 2018, three of which occurred in July. Last month, Alexa James, CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Chicago, who previously worked as CPD’s senior wellness adviser, told the Sun-Times she thinks “what is happening is inhuman.”

An issue of manpower

At the root of the problem is an issue police departments are facing all over the country: It’s harder to recruit and retain cops, both in management and on the street.

According to a 2019 report by the Police Executive Research Forum, today’s cops need the ability to deal with cyber-crime, which is more complicated than an old-fashioned purse-snatching. And they also are increasingly being expected to have the skills and temperament to deal with people who suffer from mental illness, substance abuse or homelessness.

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That makes it harder to find qualified recruits, and it encourages cops to take their pensions and retire. In June, it was reported that more than 650 officers have retired or resigned this year, with 747 projected to retire or leave by the end of the 2022. Meanwhile, there were just 353 recruits in the police academy. That’s not going to get the police department up to full staffing any time soon.

Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, told us a huge issue for all Chicagoans, including the business community, is having adequate police protection performed in a constitutional way and making sure there is a strategy for hiring more police, allocating them appropriately, training and retraining them, providing sufficient oversight and monitoring their health. 

We get that this is a tough issue to address. More cops are needed on duty to address crimes that city residents want brought under control. And, as Brown points out, when police officers are faced with dangerous situations, they want enough fellow officers with them to ensure they can control what’s happening. But canceling days off to get more cops on the street exacts its own toll.

The job of a city administration is to find answers, not just push the problem downhill onto the cops.

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